One of the few details of primary school history that sticks in my brain – well, apart from Elizabethans using white lead on their faces and only bathing once a year – is the great fairs that were held on the Thames during the Little Ice Age.
The river used to freeze so hard that folk lit bonfires on it, even roasted oxen.
And it didn’t melt!
Rivers don’t freeze in England. Ponds freeze. Streams freeze. Big, big rivers don’t.
And, yes, even after crossing a glacier in the high Himalayas, even after walking over great mountains of moraine, supported by ice that’s hard as rock, there is still something magical, almost unimaginable to me, about a frozen river.
But then there’s something magical about ice. Unlike most other liquids, water expands when it freezes, so ice floats on water, meaning rivers freeze from top to bottom, and melt into liquid life when the sunshine comes.
In Harbin, of course, we are far, far up in northern China, deep in Manchuria, in the heart of the bulge encircled by Russia, Mongolia and North Korea, so ice is not in short supply.
The climate is, quite literally, Siberian. Temperatures routinely drop below -30°C-22°F) in the winter, a dry, bright, tundra cold, with crisp sparkling sun and a sharpness to it that bites at noses, ears, fingers — even eyes! — at least until the human body works its magic of acclimatisation.
There is black ice on the pavements, frozen so hard that workmen have to hack away with axes, hammers, even chisels, and you can spot an out-of-town Chinese from a Harbiner by the way they slip and fall.
It would be easy, I think, to be miserable in this climate. But our apartment is toasty, toasty warm.
I’ve found, completed and billed enough jobs to ensure we’re financially solid next month, or at least can afford to go skiing next month and rebuild funds plus pay my stamps once the ski season ends, but I’m still waiting for people to pay me (what with being a freelance writer and all).
So, insanely, despite being in the home of the biggest ice festival on earth, the ice sculptures that I’ve wanted to see ever since I first read about them, we have to start our winter explorations on the Songhua River.
And it’s wonderful.
The river bank is alive. There are stalls selling candied hawthorns, candied strawberries, candied pineapple, hats, gloves and mittens, a few touts pushing horse and carriage rides or dog sled rides on the river, and ice slide after ice slide after ice slide, decked with lanterns and glistening in the warm afternoon light.
Beyond the ice slides? A vast expanse of snow-encrusted ice, a kilometer wide or so, the Songhua River. Surreally, there’s a cable car, tick-ticking its way across the distance. The train bridge, too, seems utterly redundant now it’s running across what might as well be tundra.
And, oh my god, the place is a giant winter playground!
“ICE SLIDES!” yells the boy, legging it to the nearest one.
“Wait!” I say. “You know we don’t have much money at the moment. You’re going to need to choose one slide and one activity.”
Zac hems and haws. There are slides you can descend in tubes. Slides you ride on mats. Slides you ride just in your cosy down jacket and ice-proof pants. Big slides, wide slides, narrow slides, bumpy slides, snow slides, ice slides…
He plumps for the biggest ice slide, carefully selects an inner tube, and descends, at pace, amid a crowd of howling, whooping Chinese, from the bank onto the frozen river.
He pronounces it good. Me? I’m just gobsmacked — yes, still gobsmacked — that something as transient as ice can support so many people! So many vehicles!
After ice skating in Beijing, I know the Chinese do ice play well, but Harbiners take it to a whole new level.
There’s tuo-luo, a game with a whipcord and a metal spinning top, which seems bewilderingly popular with adults and children alike.
There is skating, snowmobiles, ice bikes, ice skating chairs that you push along with pointed poles, luridly coloured ice “hovercraft”, a tobogganing hill, a quadbike track – yes, a quadbike track — and…
In case you hadn’t noticed, Zac is male. (Further, quadbikes are already part of his repertoire, a fact of which I am rather glad as there are no helmets in evidence and the track is solid ice.)
They are little tanks, child-size tanks, complete with gun turret and two large steering levers, with which to navigate the tight little maze with its walls of compacted snow.
And he’s off, into the setting sun.
He takes the first corner. Fails. Mounts the wall, and almost flips his tank over.
I’d always thought Zac had his father’s driving skills, but it appears he’s inherited mine.
The guys right the tank, and show him how to drive it, and then he’s off and running, sedately cruising, a big broad grin on his face, happy as only a boy driving a tank on a frozen river can be (here’s his take).
Thank god, I think. Harbin’s going to work out OK.